Medieval secrets revealed in Norwich Cathedral

CC BY-SA 3.0">Norfolk Cathedral. Image: Wikimedia Commons, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0

Norfolk Cathedral. Image: Wikimedia Commons, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0

Matthew Champion
Historian/Archaeologist with twenty years experience of working in built heritage conservation, project management and interpretation. Project director of the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey (NMGS) - a volunteer led community archaeology project that aims to undertake the first large scale, systematic survey, of medieval graffiti in the UK. Joint Winner- Awards for the Presentation of Heritage Research 2011 and 2013 winner of the Marsh award for Community Archaeology.
Matthew Champion

Latest posts by Matthew Champion (see all)


A new archaeology project has begun to bring to light hundreds of secretive inscriptions that have lain hidden on the walls of Norwich Cathedral for many centuries.

A remarkable resource

Music. A short section of early musical chant, or plainsong, inscribed into the nave of the cathedral. Image: Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey

Music. A short section of early musical chant, or plainsong, inscribed into the nave of the cathedral. Image: Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey

Members of the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey (NMGS) (www.medieval-graffiti.co.uk)  began a survey of the magnificent Norman cathedral at the beginning of February 2013 with the aim of recording early graffiti inscriptions that the building might contain. The initial results have staggered archaeologists with the sheer number and quality of graffiti so far discovered. “The building is quite literally covered in graffiti”, states Project Director, Matthew Champion, “and many of the examples we have discovered so far are of extremely high quality. Far better than we could ever have hoped for”.

The project, undertaken by volunteer survey teams, is working closely with the Dean and Chapter and Cathedral Archaeologist Roland Harris to undertake one of the very first surveys of its type to be carried out anywhere in England.  Although other graffiti surveys have been undertaken within Cathedrals such as St Albans the Norwich Cathedral survey is the first to be undertaken on a large scale using modern digital technology.

Some superb discoveries

“The initial results have been very encouraging”, continues Matthew Champion, “and we have made a number of superb discoveries. The walls are covered in everything you can think of. Medieval ships, names, animals, windmills, figures and prayers – even musical notes.  Just about everything that would have been important to the citizens of Norwich during the middle ages”.

Although today graffiti is regarded as something undesirable and destructive this doesn’t appear to have been the case during the past. Many of the inscriptions found by the survey members appear to be ritual protection marks or prayers, and the fact that they have been deeply etched into the stonework suggests to scholars that they were created with the full knowledge of the cathedral authorities – perhaps even with their blessing. “I think we have to understand that our modern view of the cathedral is very different from the way in which it was viewed by the local people during the middle ages”, continues Champion, “particularly the ways in which it was used. Although it was a place of spirituality it appears that their views of prayer and religion were much more hands-on. They saw nothing wrong with carving their prayers into the very stones of the building”.

 

A graffiti that appears to show a Romanesque style arch or niche - complete with image. Although precise dating of such a graffito is not possible, stylistically the piece appears to have much in common with 12th and 13th century imagery. However, known re-working of the stone in this area of the cathedral makes such an early date unlikely. Image: Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey

A graffiti that appears to show a Romanesque style arch or niche – complete with image. Although precise dating of such a graffito is not possible, stylistically the piece appears to have much in common with 12th and 13th century imagery. However, known re-working of the stone in this area of the cathedral makes such an early date unlikely. Image: Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey

Earlier success

The NMGS has previously been the subject of national media attention following the discovery of highly significant architectural designs etched onto the wall of Binham Priory in Norfolk.

The finds, published  in the English Heritage Historical Review, are believed to be part of the master mason’s working drawings for the architecturally important west front and are thought to date back to the 1240s. Such architectural designs were once thought to be extremely rare survivals in the UK. However, since the beginning of the Norfolk survey volunteers have located over a dozen previously unknown examples, almost doubling the number known to exist. It was hoped that other such designs might lay hidden on the walls of Norwich cathedral. “Sites such as the cathedral rarely disappoint the determined researcher”, states Champion, “and that was certainly the case with the architectural inscriptions. We located one very nice example on our first day and have since located what we believe may be two more. Given the small area of the cathedral as yet surveyed we are hopeful that others will be discovered”.

Amongst the most intriguing discoveries made so far are a number of late medieval text inscriptions, apparently names of individuals, that appear to be upside-down. Initial suggestions that they had been carved into the stones before the stones were put in place have now been discarded. It appears more likely that these particular inscriptions were deliberately created in this way. Although their exact meaning is still a mystery it has now been suggested that these inscriptions were intended to act as curses. “We see similar practises in earlier periods”, states Champion, “when personal names are either written upside-down or back to front, and it is thought that these were meant to bring ill-fortune to the subject. In effect – a curse. Although we still have a lot of work to do it is certainly not being ruled out. If we have prayers carved into the walls”, he continues, “then I can see no reason why we shouldn’t also have curses too”.

1644 - 17th century graffiti from Norwich cathedral. Much of the Cathedral graffiti seems to date from the mid-17th century, a period of extreme religious turmoil in East Anglia and beyond. During the English Civil War the cathedral was reputedly used as a stable by Roundhead soldiers. Image: Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey

1644 – 17th century graffiti from Norwich cathedral. Much of the Cathedral graffiti seems to date from the mid-17th century, a period of extreme religious turmoil in East Anglia and beyond. During the English Civil War the cathedral was reputedly used as a stable by Roundhead soldiers. Image: Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey

English Civil War

Although the survey volunteers have already identified many dozens of medieval inscriptions within the cathedral they have discovered that just as many inscriptions relate to later centuries. During the English Civil War the cathedral was reputedly used as a stable by Roundhead troops, who were notorious for defacing religious buildings, and the walls appear to bear testament to this turbulent time. In many areas of the building it is still possible to clearly make out long lists of names and initials, all with dates that link them to this period.

Although it has long been known that the cathedral contained a great many examples of graffiti the large number of inscriptions has surprised everyone involved. “We knew there was graffiti here”, states Deputy Project Director, Colin Howey, “but we had no idea just how much there would be. We have graffiti dating from at least as far back as the early 15th century and many other examples from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

However, the real thrill comes from discovering a previously unknown medieval inscription. Many of the examples can only be seen with specialist lighting and remain visible only for as long as it takes to photograph them. In many cases”, he concludes, “we are probably the first people to have seen them for many hundreds of years. You just never know what you will find next – a prayer, a curse, a ship or a windmill. It’s a real window into the hidden history of the cathedral”.

Although they have just started on this particular project, Matthew imagines  that, by the time they have finished we should have well over 5000 images from the Cathedral.

The survey by members of the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey will continue throughout the spring and early summer. Further details of the survey, and more information on the project can be found on the survey website – www.medieval-graffiti.co.uk

Source: Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey

More Information

Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey

Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey | Facebook

CBA Community Archaeology Forum: NorfolkMedievalGraffitiSurvey

Litcham Cryptogram – a medieval mystery

Volunteers are very much needed, so if you’re in Norfolk and want to have a unique opportunity to scour the walls of churches for centuries-old graffiti, call Project Director Matthew Champion at 07810 677723 or email info@medieval-graffiti.co.uk.

Cite this article

Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey (2013, Feb 04). Medieval Secrets revelaed in Norwich Cathedral . Past Horizons. February, 2013, from http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/02/2013/medieval-secrets-revelaed-in-norwich-cathedral)


For Archaeology News – Archaeology Research – Archaeology Press Releases